Revisiting the idea of justice

Earlier this year, the US Supreme Court ruled that a mandatory life sentence without parole for a juvenile is cruel and unusual punishment, even when the crime is homicide.  Excerpts from Juvenile Injustice and the States, editorial in the Sunday Review, ‘New York Times’:

In Justice Elena Kagan’s words, rather than imposing mandatory life without parole. They must take into account a youth’s age, maturity, family circumstances and history, potential for rehabilitation and other factors. And states must engage in meaningful review of juveniles in prison so they have the opportunity to re-enter their communities if they are rehabilitated.

But in the small number [of states] that have already responded to the ruling, governors and legislatures still operate within the tough-on-crime framework … In Iowa, for instance, the governor commuted the life sentences of 38 people convicted of committing murder when they were juveniles, but offered instead only the possibility of parole after 60 years in prison. In Pennsylvania, the legislature ended mandatory life without parole, but gave judges a choice between imposing life without parole or minimum sentences of 35 years for 15- to 17-year-olds convicted of murder. In North Carolina, the legislature replaced mandatory life with a minimum of 25 years.

These harsh sentences treat juveniles almost as punitively as adults. They reject the Supreme Court’s hopeful outlook about juveniles’ capacity for redemption. They disregard that this optimism is based not only “on common sense — on what ‘any parent knows,’ ” as Justice Kagan wrote, but also on lessons from neuroscience about the development of the brain and from psychology about the process of maturation, … [which] indicate “children’s diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change.”

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